Body positivity, intersecting identities and mangoes: a UNC event opens up dialogue

By Mimi Tomei

Anum Imran wore a scarlet hijab and a pinstripe sport coat, sleeves pushed up, with skateboard-style sneakers and high-waisted black jeans. She paced across the stage.

During her spoken word performance, she wove a narrative addressing racism, sexism and Islamophobia with images of cooking spicy dishes, juxtaposing identity and flavor.

Imran was joined by performers from cultural organizations like the UNC Arab Students Organization and performance-based groups like Blank Canvas Dance Company for Body Politics, an annual event in its fourth year that brings together performances to foster a conversation surrounding self-esteem, body image and identity.

Imran combined phrases of despair with hopeful ones, crafting metaphors that showed the conflicted relationship between parents and children through images like mangos. The snaps it elicited from the audience, responding to moving moments in the spoken word piece, roared with emotion despite their muted volume.

The event took place in the auditorium of the Sonja Hanes Stone Center for Black History and Culture. It was an evening of dance, music and discussion, but more than that, it was an evening of moving moments for people of many identities.

Imran wasn’t the only performer who addressed her many backgrounds. Harmonyx performed a set comprised entirely of covers of songs by black artists, from Michael Jackson to Andra Day. The performers, an a Capella group founded by UNC’s Black Student Movement, wore t-shirts with a black power fist grasping a microphone printed across the back.

Missing voices 

Though both of these groups were diverse in backgrounds and gender, the three panelists of the event acknowledged the importance of recognizing one major identity missing from both the panel and the conversation of body image as a whole – men.

Nicho Stevens, a member of UNC’s Student Hip Hop Organization, was a male performer in a program that featured more male performers than it drew in audience members. Stevens’ piece, interrupted only by the occasional siren-like screams of the oft-malfunctioning microphone, charted a course that included the impact of racially charged comments, identity and masculinity.

Stevens said hip-hop allows musicians to express emotions with something not found in other forms of expression such as conversation – freedom. This freedom in style, verse and rhythm lends itself to engaging conversations on emotional topics.

“It’s like reaching into your soul,” Stevens said.

Stevens discussed how challenging it can be for men to recognize and talk about vulnerability when society expects them to be strong, confident and unemotional.

Gillian Fortier, who helped organize the event, said intersectional identities can affect self-esteem and make it harder for people with mental health challenges to seek treatment. Fortier recognized that her gender makes her participation in these discussions more socially accepted.

Unpacking issues 

Attendees submitted questions throughout the performances via Poll Everywhere, an app more familiar to UNC-Chapel Hill students for its use in taking attendance at lectures than for an extracurricular event.

Caroline Holcomb, Emily Hagstrom and Marissa Butler, the three panelists, facilitated a conversation following the performances that meandered through issues, including self-care while being an effective advocate for others, as well as personal stories from both the audience and panelists.

With only one panelist of color, though, the group had to come to terms with privilege in their discussion of self-worth.

“I feel it is particularly important to consider identity and privilege when it comes to exploring body image because we all have different bodies, receive different messages from society, culture, etc. and have different experiences in childhood and in relationships that may affect how we see our bodies,” said Holcomb, a social worker with UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services. “And we must consider the unique intersection of all of these influences in order to reach a healthier, more accepting place within ourselves when it comes to body image.”

Remember to marvel

The evening started out with a Spotify playlist of empowering songs like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” But these messages of self-love can fall on deaf ears when people don’t feel they can love themselves. Panelists, event organizers and audience members noted that body positivity can often involve telling people to be proud of their bodies and not take any grief from anyone who says otherwise – even if that person is themselves.

“Something in particular that struck me was the concept that you don’t always have to love your body,” Alexandra Smith, who attended the event, said. “You can just be content with it and that’s perfectly fine.”

Regardless of your identities, it’s important to marvel at the human body at a most basic, anatomical level, said Fortier, who is photo editor for Embody Carolina, an organization that trains students to support those with eating disorders.

Sometimes in the wave of body positivity, this appreciation for the innumerable chemical reactions, neural connections and cardiovascular processes it takes doctors four years of medical school to understand gets left behind – but Fortier summed it up in three one-syllable words.

“It does stuff.”

Edited by Janna Childers. 

Published by

Janna Childers

UNC Global